Interview: Stella & Christian Vander of Magma

The French prog-rock legends talk to Prague TV ahead of their November 26th Alternativa festival appearance at Divadlo Archa

"[Magma] came mainly from a European compositional tradition - from Carl Orff, from Stravinsky, from eastern European folk music - and though their performing power came from rock and radical black jazz, the spirit, form and content of their 'oeuvre' was unequivocally European."
Magic Magma by Chris Cutler
Sound International, May 1979

In 1975 when Rick Wakeman's King Arthur was presented as an ice-skating show it seemed progressive rock had gone off the deep end in the UK. In the US and the UK, prog-rock's demise would soon be transplanted by a vigorous punk-rock scene. But what followed was a post-punk flood of groups who drew inspiration from the progressive rock the original punks had despised.

In many cases, though, the progressive rock that influenced post-punk was not from the UK but from France and Germany. From the late 60s onward, groups like Magma continued to take the form into new realms of both music and community, and anticipated the rock pulse that would find its way into late-20th- and 21st-century "classical" compositions.

Although Magma's DIY methods of promotion, networking and community building were intended to resist the cultural hegemony of the UK and US music industry there was an affinity to the musical resistance carried out by the Czech underground scene. It's no surprise, then, that Magma will perform two nights at this year's Alternativa festival.

As well as Magma, this year's Alternativa festival features Prague's MCH band collaborating with Agon Orchestra, Už jsme doma collaborating with Mikrochor and a host of diverse musical pleasures. The event provides a perfect opportunity to listen to Europe's more futuristic reads of progressive-rock and post-punk art-rock.

We recently talked with Magma members Stella and Christian Vander about their music.

Darrell Jónsson: Do you think continental Europe approached progressive rock, or the mix of classical influences into rock, differently from the UK?

Stella Vander: Yes, no doubt about it. First of all we can say that UK musicians have a different approach to any music, they really have a genuine sound and a different pulse. Also, there aren't so many English classical composers.

DJ: Can you tell us something about Magma as a community and its community of listeners?

SV: We could say family. The band and all the musicians around Magma are a family. We share the same passion for music and a total involvement. I think Magma listeners are very open-minded about music, open to many different styles of music. They look for something else, something unusual. When they love Magma, it's usually very intense and they become part of the family.

DJ: Did you, prior to 1989, feel any affinity to what was happening musically in Czechoslovakia?

SV: We didn't hear much about the Czech music scene except that there were a lot of very good musicians, [including] jazz and classical musicians.

DJ: Since you began your musical journey, how have the borders between classical "high-brow" and rock "low-brow" musics changed?

SV: First of all I would like to say that we were one of the first bands to have musicians coming from very different musical backgrounds. Today everybody tries to play many styles of music. That was not the case in the 70s. Classical musicians played classical music, jazz musicians played jazz and of course rock musicians played rock or pop music. They were quite sectarian. Today it's easy to make a band with a classical violinist, a heavy-rock bass player and a jazz pianist. It's another kind of "world music." It's an enrichment for everyone.

DJ: Jazz is mentioned as a major influence on you and on Magma, particularly John Coltrane. Was Alice Coltrane also in any way an inspiration to Magma?

Christian Vander: She's directly linked to John. I always loved her piano and her spiritual approach to music … so she's part of our influences. Offering - the band we started in 1983 - is obviously more inspired by her sound and we wanted it that way. It is not obvious for someone who listens to Magma for the first time to hear that it is linked to Coltrane's music. It's more in the demarche and in the spiritual quest.

DJ: Part of Magma's art seems to be the building of a cosmology, such as the mythical planet of Kobaia, which appears in your work. That brings to mind Sun Ra, Gong, William Blake, Tolkien and other visionary artists who built worlds of their own.

CV: It may come to mind but it isn't so. I wasn't listening to these musicians at that time, and I wasn't reading Tolkien. The first time I met [Gong founder] Daevid Allen, it was in 1971 and he was the first to tell me that Gong was also a planet, just like Kobaia.

DJ: Are you still building on your cosmology for new musical themes?

CV: The original idea is still evolving. This is only one way to dig into our minds to find the cosmos. This is hard to explain in a few sentences - it would require much more time to develop.

DJ: Lastly, is there anything you'd like to say to the people anticipating your upcoming concert in Prague?

CV: Everyone in the band is thrilled to play in Prague for the first time. We were waiting many years to play in former-Soviet Europe and we're anxious to see how people will receive our music. I have Polish roots and I'm quite sure that Magma's music will sound familiar to a Czech audience.

• The 2005 Alternativa festival runs until December 3rd

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